Life was generally not good in West Kilbride at the start of the 19th Century. More than half of the village lived in squalid, cramped conditions in tenement buildings on the now vacant King’s Arms Car Park.
Between 1795 when the rather romantic picturesque village was described by the Rev Oughterson, until 1832 when Cholera reared it’s ugly head, our village was actually a rather nasty, dismal place to live for most people. In this article, I want to try to describe a little about what living was like for the poor people of West Kilbride in these years.
In subsequent pieces of my poor writings, I want to try to describe how the village changed. In a period of about 50 years, through one significant event or another, our village changed dramatically to much what we know today. Many of us don’t know how the bodysnatching antics of Burke and Hare had a dramatic effect on the public consciousness, and how that fed into the Paisley Cholera Riots of 1832 which would have been felt so keenly here. We have already discussed the Corn Laws and their repeal, but of course there was great revolutionary unrest throughout Europe in the 1840’s which was not isolated – and the incidence of Cholera and Typhus reached it’s peak leading to the building of the new public graveyard. Then came the railway and the growth of tourism leading to massive redevelopment throughout our village and the final demise of the slum property.
West Kilbride town centre in the 1820’s.
On this map you can see the old Barony Church in the middle left of the picture.
To the right of the church were one square set of buildings with a hole in the middle – we would recognise only a small part of this building nowadays as the King’s Arms Pub. In the 1820’s this was three storeys high and square as shown. The outline of the old buildings can still be seen in the car park and on the side of the pub to this day.
The next building to the right was further tenements where people were cramped into. This building looks like a N shape on the map. At the end of the tail of the N is a square building marked Inn – it was called the Albion Inn and was where most people purchased their daily beer for their breakfast and dinner (including the children).
The building below the number 7 in the 728 on the map was the old Post Office. This was where letters and parcels were delivered by mail coach. In those days there were no stamps – if you received a letter, you had to pay for it! People dreaded receiving mail as it cost so much. One exception was that if you received a letter or parcel from your Member of Parliament – this was free. Therefore often times, if people moved to London, they would pass a letter to their MP who would add it to a large parcel and send it through the mail system to the Parish Minister who would ensure that the individual pieces of mail were delivered. This was a rather lucrative nice little earner for MP’s and Minister’s. If you did not live in London and wanted to let your mother know you were well, you could send a letter in your own recognisable handwriting with no contents – simply the envelope. Your mother would then refuse to pay for the item but she had got the message that you were alive and well.
On the map, below the letter T on Bridgend to the left of the mill, was the Bakery. It still stands to this day to the East of the Car Park. Opposite the Bakery were cottages. These cottages housed other shops and inns (often manned by widows who earned a living by distilling spirits such as gin). At the end of the eighteenth century, the textile industry had begun to make a serious impact in the economy. These cottages would soon be cramped with weavers all with looms, spinning yarn for the Paisley textile industry. It would be events in Paisley that would come to change our attitudes towards public housing and health and steer the West Kilbride Town Council to finally make changes that benefitted the majority.
The Parish Church school can be seen below the church. These are not the buildings that now sit on this land, as in the 1870’s it was all demolished to make the new school and church. The graveyard was not where it sits now, but actually where the word “Church” is situated on the map. Not that the poor people could expect to be buried within the Kirkyard – this was reserved for those who could pay for a burial plot. Poor people would be buried in pauper graves which were pits dug out further down the path past the school (the path was known as Miln Road or Mill Road). If you could afford it, you might be able to hire a reusable coffin and shroud for your last moments – there would be returnable to the church after use. In Scotland it was often the job of the wife to ensure that some cloth was saved for a shroud when the day came. If you lived on the coast e.g. at Ardneil, you were much more likely to be superstitious and often times dead bodies were taken out to the edge of the water at low tide and allowed to be taken away by the sea, in due course.
To the right of the Bakery was the largest corn mill in the village, and the largest employer. Following the Napoleonic Wars, young men returned to find their families had been cleared from the agricultural lands that they had previously tenanted, and they were now all employed in the various mills.
The passageway between the large tenements was known as King’s Close. It afforded access to Nethermill and the charcoal mills where fuel was prepared. The children could also attend the Parish school from here, and such agricultural workers as were left could get to the various fields. Other passageways such as Drummilling Road also afforded access to the other mills in the area.
All this land, with the tenements, had been sold by the Church to the King family in the 17th Century. In fact, one of the family – Alexander King – was minister in the Barony for 39 years between 1843 and 1882 and would oversee many of the changes I have mentioned above.The Kings built their own luxury home in 1729 opposite the entrance to the Barony Church as it now is, and this fine early Georgian building remains to this day.
On the map, below the word “School”, are the school offices. This would be where administration was conducted and where the teachers could escape to. Class numbers were enormous and the children would be made to sit on the floor for most of the day during lesson time.
To the right hand side of the path opposite the school offices was the town midden indicated by the dotted pattern. This was where all the rubbish and human waste was disposed of (see below). Of course the rubbish was not as we would know it nowadays – no plastics or food packaging or cans – but more broken pottery, human waste and the remains of animal bones from meals.
Of course there were other parts of the village that people lived and worked in, but this section of the village was the bustling centre where the vast majority of people would spend their daily life.
Life in King’s Close
I am not aware of any written records from this time that relate specifically to King’s Close except the national census records. These records show that an average of between 8 and 9 people survived. Each room was usually around 10 x 16 feet and so we could expect that around 800 people lived in the small space we know as the King’s Arms Car Park – go have a look at it some time and stand incredulous as to how this could possibly have been the case!
The victorian engraving here shows how people lived in one small room. This room actually looks quite spacious compared to the ones that were the norm in our village.
In the map, you can see that both the tenements have a space in the middle of the square – this was for the disposal of human waste. There were no toilets in the buildings and people used pots which were emptied into the middle of the buildings. If West Kilbride was an most other late Georgian buildings, an old man would be given free accommodation as employment to shovel up the waste and take it to the town midden or sweep it out of the middle on to the path. In West Kilbride the church bell would sound when most workers were due to arise or finish work, but occasionally agricultural workers had to be up earlier and this old man might be employed to knock people up to wake them for their work. The children would often rake about in the town midden looking for anything that could be eaten or sold. In due course such practices would assist the spread of cholera.
There was of course no public water supply. The only drinkable, affordable liquid was beer. This was watered down for the young children. In general, alcohol provided 25-30% of the weekly calorie intake. This meant that by night time, many people were drunk and disorderly and alcoholism was a huge problem in the village. If fact it was the biggest killer of adults in our village prior to the outbreaks of Cholera and Typhus. The poor living conditions and high drinking rates resulted in terrible breathing difficulties, pneumonia and many other types of disease that the poor could not afford to have treated.
Actually, the last thing you would have wanted if you were ill, was medical assistance! Doctors had very little idea how to treat illnesses and the high death rate was appalling. If you were removed to any kind of medical facility, the chances of your survival in the unclean Georgian hospitals were very low indeed. Worse still, men who had returned from the Napoleonic Wars would tell of the most brutal treatment of wounds and infections by doctors, and many would bear the scars or missing limbs. The slightest injury could mean amputation or worse – statistically you had a far better chance by staying away from the medical profession! The public attitude to doctors would get worse before it got better.
The poor would work six days a week, and attend church on the seventh. However, Sunday was often a market day for the poor. After church (sometimes even during church), a market would be established in the common grounds around the church. Nowadays we see tombstones in the grounds of the Barony, but they were moved there in the 1870’s with some of the bodies – this is why they look misaligned (they would normally be East to West) and out of place. The grounds of the Barony sloped down to the Main Street – the wall surrounding this section of the Barony grounds was built in the 1870’s. The Sunday market would be held all around the church and down to the Main Street (the Kirkcroft) and was when poor people would come out to trade, gamble, do business, drink, play games or meet. Law and order was a big problem for the townspeople but this is a major reason why the Kilbride Tavern is where it is situated today and why the water fountain opposite was installed around 1876.
Of course there were middle and upper classes. In the 1820’s most of these people stayed in large houses or estates. Servants would stay in lodgings within these houses, and it was highly desirable to enter service and it really was a lot more comfortable than the lot of the King’s Close people. Beer would be supplied by the barrel load by the Taverns to these houses, and again alcoholism was a huge issue for these classes and the servants.
So, as you can see, in the 1820’s most people lived and worked in this tiny section of our village and struggled simply to exist. A storm was coming from the East…..
Next article – Burking and the Paisley Cholera Riots